The prospect of Sarah Palin installed just a heartbeat away from the presidency is alarming, not merely because of what is emerging about her character, but for her religious views. I am all too familiar with a woman who closely resembled the Alaska governor. Her name was Anna Spafford, and I know her because I wrote the story of her life. She was a simple woman, an immigrant who was swept up, like so many in the last half of America's 19th century, in an extraordinary religious fervor which historians call the Third Great Awakening. At that time the issues were not abortion rights or stem cell research or the imminence of global warming. Instead, what drew huge crowds to churches was dread that Armageddon was at hand because of wickedness--meaning social unrest amongst the working poor who were exploited by the rich. Preachers told their congregations that only personal salvation could solve social ills. Religious fundamentalism was the order of the day. Sarah Palin is a modern day representative of this thinking.
Anna belonged to a new theological movement from England called "pre-millennial dispensationalism" that taught a horrifying scenario of a vengeful Christ returning to punish sinners and "rapture" the virtuous into Heaven. Sarah Palin subscribes to this view, as do many among today's evangelicals who read the wildly successful books written by Tim LeHay and Jerry Jenkins called "the Left Behind" series. Unsophisticated and only partially educated, Anna suffered some terrible personal losses and led a group of believers to the Holy Land to witness the Messiah's arrival. Like Palin, she was confident that the Lord had anointed her with special powers, and gave her authority to lead. Charismatic and controlling like Sarah Palin, Anna insisted on their absolute loyalty to her. She brooked no dissent and no discussion. She took their money and anyone who disagreed with her was punished. Like Sarah Palin, her world and her values were directed by God--or so she insisted. Her intimidated followers found themselves with little freedom of choice. How, I wondered as I researched the life of this powerful woman, could people hand over to another the independence that makes us human; how could they have been so credulous?
Anna Spafford fascinated me for her formidable personality and winning ways, for her rise to power, and for the times in which she lived. America was changing from an agricultural to an industrial society and there was great uncertainty in the air, just as there is in America today. People were frightened for what the future might hold and were turning in droves to faith to provide solutions, often at the expense of reason and science. We are a very religious country, and while there is no harm in that, our founding fathers understood the importance of creating a firewall between church and state. Yet like many today, Anna took the Bible literally, searched it for instruction, and demanded her followers do as well.
Sarah Palin is a throwback to this fundamentalist past and her autocratic inclinations (attempting to fire those who disagree), her reliance on an intimate circle of loyalists (her husband and her high school pals whom she has rewarded with high-paying jobs), her misuse of power (her per diem charges to the tax payer for days at home), her falsehoods and bombast (denying that she supported the "Bridge to Nowhere"), her invocations of God to determine her course (the Iraq war, she believes, was "God's plan"), and lastly her messianic world view (she has been quoted as saying that she believes "Jesus will return in my lifetime.")--all this disturbs me deeply. It is too familiar, too like the Anna Spaffords of this world. Never mind that Sarah Palin stands against what most women want (abortion rights, sex education for their children, the shining promise of stem cell research). Are we really going to elect as vice president someone so obviously unprepared and unfamiliar with the great economic and political issues that confront us today? Can we afford to take that chance?
Anna Spafford lived a long and in many ways useful life, for she directed her followers to tend the needy and feed the sick in the shabby, neglected outpost that was Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire. She was not a wicked person, anymore than Sarah Palin is. She stumbled into a powerful position but lacked the intellectual breadth and training to govern wisely. We still don't know all the circumstances that created Sarah Palin and we certainly wish her a long and useful life--one in which, perhaps, she will come to respect the value of long experience in government and acquaintance with the important issues that dominate our lives. She might even live, as Anna did, to see that her narrow vision was mistaken, that many of her assumptions were wrong. But for now, this is the fact: Sarah Palin is unqualified for the great responsibility of the vice presidential office.
Jane Fletcher Geniesse lives In Washington DC and is the author of AMERICAN PRIESTESS: the Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2008)